Washington State Penitentiary prepares to open units

Added inmates and added jobs are in the offing as the penitentiary prepares to open units old and new.

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Washington State Penitentiary Superintendent Steve Sinclair walks down one of the tiers of cells in Unit 5, which is slated for reopening this July to house minimum security prisoners.

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An outside view of Unit 5 at the Washington State Penitentiary. Closed several years ago, the unit will be reopened in July to relieve overcrowding in the prison system by housing minimum security prisoners.

WALLA WALLA -- A major change at Washington State Penitentiary that started this year will soon take another step forward.

When the prison's now-closed Unit 5 reopens in July, it will push the prison's minimum-security population from some 700 beds to about 945 beds, making it one of the state's biggest minimum-security facilities. All those inmates will be in the prison's East Complex, the part of the penitentiary formerly known as the Main Institution.

The conversion of the East Complex from medium-security to minimum-security started in January. "It was a tremendous job," said Superintendent Steve Sinclair.

"At that time I was in Olympia as (acting) deputy director of prisons, so (acting Superintendent) Don Holbrook and his team here did all the heavy lifting."

The transition of the East Complex into minimum-security has been a milestone in the history of the institution, Sinclair said. "Interestingly for us, we've been focused on close-custody offenders and now that's sort of flipped," he noted as he toured Unit 5 with a reporter Monday.

Prior to its closing in 2009, Unit 5 used to house inmates with mental health problems and those who needed protective custody. Fortunately, when the facility was shut down, it was a "soft closure," meaning utilities were kept connected, making its restart and conversion to house minimum-security offenders relatively simple.

The reopening of the unit will be a welcome boost to the area's economy, as it will require adding at least 20 correctional officers along with other positions such as counselors, clerical staff and maintenance workers.

Hiring is expected to take another boost next year when a new 512-bed, medium-security facility now under construction in the prison's West Complex is finished.

That is expected to require about 130 additional positions, Sinclair said.

Dan Pacholke, Department of Corrections prison division director, said last week that by this summer the department will need "just shy of 300 beds" to house minimum-security inmates.

That need will be eased by the reopening of Unit 5. Another demand on the horizon will be for medium-security beds. The opening of the medium-security unit at WSP next summer will help that, but not solve the problem.

"As things stand today, the main need will be for medium-custody beds," Pacholke said. "And that's after we occupy the Washington State Penitentiary beds."

During the last session, the Legislature ordered the Office of Financial Management to prepare a report by October on the future capacity needs of the DOC.

Sinclair said he also hopes to be able to send more minimum-security inmates out on work crews to perform projects outside the prison walls. Such a crew recently helped with a restoration project on Yellowhawk and Garrison creeks, ripping out invasive species and replanting native species, and crews have also helped with building Habitat for Humanity homes and other projects.

"We're going to be the largest minimum security camp in the state with close to 1,000 beds," Sinclair said. "So our hope is we'll be able to get these guys out to help the community."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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